Itās a sneaky boring, though. At first you think endlessly striking out, and then even more endlessly striking out with runners on base, and then almost always striking out with runners in scoring positionācoupled with an almost abject unwillingness to play station-to-station baseball, to advance the runner from second to third, to try to ground out to the right side, to approach the plate with anything that looks like a plan, to take a shot to the opposite field, to have every batter in the lineup save for the indomitable Freeman swing like heās swinging for a 5-run homerāat first you think all of that is molar-rattlingly frustrating. At first you wonder if any of these gentlemen ever played Pony League baseball, ever had a coach sit āem down for swinging at pitches on their shoelaces or up by their necks. You wonder if anyoneās ever hollered out Fundamentals at anybody from the dugout or the bleachers. If anybody ever took any one of these players to the cages and lined up a stack of quarters and told them anything like Eye on the ball, kid, eye on the ball. Easy rhythm. Told them not to swing up so much. Just to make solid, honest contact. This team bats like it also wouldn’t ever put a knee in the dirt fielding a grounder. It bats like eight blind nuns, plus Freeman, who should, by the way, be an All-Star. It bats like a Little League team. It bats like the portly knuckleballer Phil Neikro did, who once in the 1980s hit a homer with his eyes closed. āI just swing as hard as I can,ā he said in his postgame interview, āin case I hit the ball.ā
This team needs to take a lap.
I canāt watch Dan Uggla bat anymore. I can barely listen to it on the radio. I love the radio guys, and theyāre doing their best to stay positive, to talk about his plate discipline and his robust on-base percentage and whatever other fancy half-doctored stats pretty up the fact that he strikes out 19 times a game, but itās not enough. He hit two homers over the weekend and I still donāt care. Itās too unpleasant. His swing looks like heās holding a frozen stretched-out turkey instead of a bat. His swing looks like heās sneezing. His swing looks like heās trying to remember how to swing.
If either Upton pops out in foul territory on the infield one more time, Iām buying a Padres hat.
And after a while, you start to think: Maybe Iāll bang my head into the fridge a few times instead of listening to this game. You think: How could Uggla be batting .205 again? You think: How could B.J. Upton still be in the majors with a .175 average? You think: Sure, we won 13-4 the other night in Philly, but we dropped the other two games looking like exactly the kind of schoolyard choose-a-side outfit that might win a game 13-4. And after a season of it, a season of directionless all-or-nothing hitting, you think: at this point, maybe Iām not actually all that frustrated by this anymore. Iāve spent 80 games being frustrated. Finally, when we strand Freeman yet again on third after heās gotten himself over there with no outs, you think: you know what I am? Iām bored out of my mind. We canāt even find it within us to hit a sacrifice fly. The joy of sport is not knowing whatās going to happen, and I know whatās going to happen. Weāre going to strike out or pop it up on the infield.
Yes, Minnesotans and Seattleites and denizens of South Florida, our spot is enviable. Yes, Iām happy to be leading the division. But can anyone take any kind of serious look at these Braves and think they match up well in a playoff series against any other club?
You couldn’t have hit that with a canoe paddle, my dad would say to me on the ride back home from a game. Then weād go to the cages. And he wasnāt one of those lunatic golf-shirt wearing dads who would try to cover up their failing lives and flagging libidos by driving life-sized Hot Wheels racecar convertibles and endlessly berating their kids on the field. He was and is just a nice guy with a big heart who drove a beater 1968 VW bug and who wanted his kid, who wanted to hit the ball, to have an actual chance of hitting the ball.
There are other problems, I know. The team is half-injured and the bullpen is thin. But hereās the thing about the āsit-back-and-wait-for-a-three-run-homerā school of baseball, which, as religion goes, is as bankrupt as it comes: In order to hit a three-run-homer, youāve got to have at least these two things in your favor: (1) as far as I understand it, youāve got to have two of your teammates on base in front of you, and (2) you have to make clean, sharp contact with the baseball.
Iāll tell you who I miss: Evan Gattis. Yes, I spent a thousand words lauding him in this space my last time at the plate, going on and on about his mythic fancy Paul Bunyanness. But you know what I miss most about him? Right before he went on the DL, heād started sharply grounding singles through the right side. Delivering liners back up the middle. He looked every bit the fundamentally sound baseball player. I dig the long ball as much as the next guy, but, listen, please: I also dig a team nickeling-and-diming you in the third inning, stringing two singles and a chopper thatās too slow to be a double-play ball and a looping double together for a couple of runsāand this team is desperate for that. We need some scratching and clawing. We need some hitting. We need to take some BP. We need some games of pepper. We need something.
A confession: What I really keep thinking is: Isn’t this team better than this? Isn’t the distance between a good team and a great one pretty razor-thin? Isn’t it about execution? About having some idea at the plate other than trying to hit the ball as far as anyone ever has?
My old Little League coach used to have a rule for a struggling batter: Donāt swing until you take the first strike. The idea was: Donāt just swing at anything. Donāt go up there flailing and windmilling after the first thing you see. This team is for sure tilting at windmills. It gets hot and wins a few games and it thinks, letās just keep closing our eyes and swinging as hard as we can. But then it goes to San Diego and gets swept. It drops consecutive series to the Marlins and the Phillies. It had a division all but wrapped up and then started handing games back in bunches.
And donāt get too excited about last nightās cornfield-in-Iowa fourteenth-inning miracle against those mighty Marlins: yes, there was the sac fly I so desperately wanted in thesixth, and yes, we had my inning in the fourteenth, when we strung together two walks and a double before the rest of the wheels came off the again-fire-sold Miami caravan, and yes, the Braves ended up posting six runs total in the top half of the frame. But before all that happenedāand Uggla hung up yet another K in the center of that six-run rally, by the by, his third of the gameāthe team tried very hard to give up the rare mid-game perfect game. From the singleton in the sixthinning through the fourteenth, 24 Braves were set down in order by various members of the Miami bullpen. Eight innings of Braves. In order. By the Marlins. In front of eleven screaming Miami fans.
Iāve never been so bored getting so wounded. Iāve never tried so hard to convince myself I was bored, and not homicidally fed up. Iāve been trying to explain it to the kids: This isnāt National League baseball. This isnāt even American League baseball. Itās too hard to watch. Itās too hard to hear. I canāt go on. I will, though, of course, go on. Radio coverage starts at 6:30 tonight. Second game of the series at the Marlins. Everything ought to go just great. Swing for the fences, boys. Go Braves.